The 1976 Minnesota Vikings had a lot of proud veterans who were past their prime. But rather than fading quietly into the night after a devastating playoff loss in 1975, this group of vets put it together for another big run and reached a third Super Bowl in four years.
Throughout the roster, players that had been All-Pros and would be future Hall of Famers were long in the tooth. Fran Tarkenton was 36-years-old at quarterback, as was his center, Mick Tingelhoff. On the defensive ends, Carl Eller was 34 and Jim Marshall was 39. Free safety Paul Krause was 34. Alan Page, still the best player on the defensive front, was a Pro Bowler, but no longer first-team All-Pro as he’d been six of the previous seven years.
There was every reason to expect decline from the Vikings, but this defense still found a way to be second in the NFL in points allowed. They were under a first-year coordinator that was on his way to big things, one by the name of Buddy Ryan.
It also helped that head coach Bud Grant made a couple moves to get Tarkenton some help offensively. The production of wideout John Gilliam had been fading for a couple years, and Grant acquired Ahmad Rashad from the Buffalo Bills, and drafted Sammy White. Tarkenton now had weapons, and he still had 26-year-old Chuck Foreman running the ball. Foreman ran for 1,155 yards and the offense ranked ninth in the NFL in points scored.
Minnesota went to New Orleans to start the year and Foreman showed off his pass-catching skill, with seven catches for 106 yards in a 40-9 rout. The next week the Vikings hosted the Los Angeles Rams, one of their consistent rivals for NFC supremacy.
A 56-yard TD pass from Tarkenton to White helped give Minnesota a 10-0 lead, but Los Angeles rallied to tie it. The Vikes couldn’t stop the running of Lawrence McCutcheon and John Cappelletti, who each went over 100 yards. Neither team could score in overtime and the game ended 10-10.
The Vikings were sluggish next week in Detroit, escaping with a 10-9 win because the Lions didn’t’ convert an extra point in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the sluggishness was understandable—Detroit was a subpar team and they were sandwiched right between the Ram game and the coming Monday Night visit from the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the Monday Night stage, the Minnesota defense delivered. They intercepted Terry Bradshaw four times and the offensive line created room for Foreman, who ran for 148 yards against the vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense. Even though Tarkenton couldn’t get anything going through the air—41 passing yards, Minnesota won 17-6.
Another botched extra point by a mediocre division rival saved Minnesota on October 10, as the Chicago Bears missed a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter and the Vikings won 20-10. Tarkenton opened up the next week and lit up the New England Patriots for 288 passing yards and a 24-7 win.
Minnesota kept their undefeated season going by taking over the second half in Philadelphia. A 9-7 halftime deficit was turned into a 31-12 rout on the strength of Foreman’s 200 rush yards. But the first loss came the next week in Chicago.
The Bears had been a terrible team for the entire decade, and were now elevating to respectability. They would finish this year 7-7 with second-year running back Walter Payton. A 39-yard touchdown run by Payton in the first quarter was followed by both defenses taking over and the Vikings coming up short 14-13.
Tarkenton had a big day against Detroit. The Vikings had a tough time shaking the lions, but Tarkenton threw for 347 yards and they kept the lead throughout in a 31-23 win. It was also a huge day for White, who amassed 210 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The next week was an extremely alarming win. The Seattle Seahawks were an expansion team, and in spite of turning it over four times, Seattle led this game 21-20 in the fourth quarter. Tarkenton’s five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Stu Voigt averted embarrassment. Another pedestrian win followed, 17-10 win in Green Bay, with a fourth-quarter TD pass to Rashad making the difference.
A good team winning while playing poorly is usually the recipe for an upset and it proved to be the case when Minnesota went to San Francisco the next Monday Night. The 49ers weren’t bad, on their way to an 8-6 season, and they ran all over Minnesota. The Niner piled up 317 yards on the ground, with Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson each having huge nights and the result was a 20-16 defeat for Grant’s team.
The loss was also consequential. Minnesota had the NFC Central all but iced, but at 9-2-1, they now trailed the Dallas Cowboys by a half-game in the race for the #1 seed, a concept that was just in its second year (through 1974 homefield was set by pre-determined divisional rotations). The Rams were in pursuit at 8-3-1 for the right to host a game as the #2 seed in what was then a four-team bracket with three divisional winners and one wild-card.
Minnesota’s rushing game dominated a game with Green Bay. The Vikings got 218 yards on the ground, 95 of them from Robert Miller, a second-year back who had his career highlight in a 20-9 win. The following Saturday, Minnesota was in Miami.
Don Shula’s Dolphins had slipped and were in a brief rebuilding mode, with a 6-7 record coming into the game. Tarkenton and White connected three times for touchdowns, as White caught nine passes for 120 yards in all. Minnesota won 29-7. Then they watched in delight the next day when the Washington Redskins went to Dallas and upset the Cowboys 27-14. Minnesota had the top spot in the NFC playoffs.
Minnesota hosted Washington the next week, and it appeared the Redskins had blown their emotion just to make the playoffs in Dallas. Foreman ran for 105 yards and fullback Brent McClanahan went for 101. The Vikes were up 21-3 at half and 35-6 after three quarters, before garbage time Washington points made the final score appear respectable at 35-20.
Los Angeles upset Dallas in the other NFC divisional game. It was the second time in three years the Vikings and Rams had met in the conference championship game.
Minnesota’s cornerback Bobby Bryant, also a big special teams player, made the play of the game early. Los Angeles had driven deep into Minnesota territory and was attempting a short field goal. Bryant blocked the kick and brought it 90 yards to the house. Just like that, it was 7-0 Minnesota and it would become 17-0.
The Vikings couldn’t stop McCutcheon any better in December than they could in September though, and the Ram running back ran for 128 yards. Los Angeles scored two touchdowns, but a missed extra point left the margin at four points, 17-13 into the fourth quarter.
Minnesota was still the team avoiding mistakes though, while Los Angeles coughed it up four times. The turnover edge was the difference, and the Vikings got another touchdown and closed out a 24-13 win.
For the third time in four years, and the fourth time since 1969, the Vikings were going to the Super Bowl. There was still one thing they hadn’t done though, and that was win it. That wasn’t going to change this year. The Oakland Raiders of John Madden were a better team (the NFL’s best teams were in the AFC through the 1970s).
Minnesota had a chance early when they blocked a punt and recovered on the two-yard line. But they promptly fumbled it back and after a scoreless first quarter, Oakland opened up and won 32-14.
The Vikings were never able to win a Super Bowl, under Grant or since. The 1976 team was the last one to make it that far. The next 2-3 seasons would see a gradual fade of one of the 1970s outstanding teams.